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2015 Winter Mango Deal : Pacific may be primed for powerful El Nino

Capital Weather Gang

By Jason Samenow April 15

Visualization of the moderate-to-strong El Nino from February 2010 (NOAA)

El Nino is officially here and forecasters say it could grow substantially stronger in the coming months.

El Nino refers to the episodic warming of ocean temperatures in central and eastern tropical Pacific, which has ripple effects in weather systems around the globe. For example, its presence tends to decrease Atlantic hurricane activity, but increase fall and winter rains in California.

Forecasting the present El Nino has proven to be a humbling experience.

 Last spring, the National Weather Service assigned favorable odds for its arrival by the fall, which never happened.

 A lack of sustained westerly winds, required to transport warm water from western to eastern tropical Pacific, was one reason.

But now that El Nino conditions are firmly established, forecasters are somewhat more confident the stage is set for intensification.

Phil Klotzbach, a climate researcher at Colorado State University who studies the effects of El Nino on Atlantic hurricane activity, points to several indicators suggesting El Nino will strengthen, and perhaps substantially.

In March, Klotzbach says, a burst of westerly winds – the strongest since 1997 – ripped across the tropical Pacific.

 Although a similar burst – almost as strong – occurred in the 2014, the winds did not persist. “This year’s westerly wind burst was longer-lasting and more intense than last year’s event,” Klotzbach says.

Klotzbach adds the tropical atmosphere and ocean is much better conditioned for El Nino compared to last year. “The upper ocean heat content is higher,” he says.

 “This means that there is more fuel for the El Nino to develop. In addition, upper and lower-level winds are more El Nino-like, especially when you look at the longer-term average.”

Ocean heat content in the central and eastern tropical Pacific over time (NOAA)

Many seasonal prediction models forecast a moderate-to-strong El Nino by the fall, supporting Klotzbach’s forecast.

CFS model simulations for ocean temperatures in the central tropical Pacific. Any temperature deviation exceeding 1C is considered a moderate event, while anything exceeding 1.5C is considered a strong event. Most of the members are calling for a strong event in August-October.

El Nino conditions have fluorished in recent weeks says Paul Roundy, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University at Albany.

“[B]uoy observations suggest that the growth rate of El Niño conditions over the last few weeks is larger than any past event at this time of the year, even larger than the big event of 1997,” Roundy says. “[T]he present amplitude, when compared with signals at the same time of year, for growing events, is the largest in the historical record going back to 1980.”

Roundy calls for an 80 percent that strong El Nino conditions will develop this June and July and continue into next winter.

El Nino skeptics may recall Roundy also predicted an 80 percent chance of the development of a strong El Nino at this time last year, which proved erroneous. “I was one of those who suggested an 80% chance of a strong event last year,” he concedes.

 “Were similar patterns to develop again, I would make the same forecast. An 80% chance implies a 20% chance of failure.”

Roundy admits he could be wrong again with this year’s forecast. “The [El Nino] event could potentially fail to grow if westerly winds fail to continue to organize between now and the end of May,” says Roundy . “Should that occur, colder water would emerge in the equatorial Pacific region in June. I think the chance of such failure is 20% or less.”

The National Weather Service is more cautious than Roundy in its forecast.

“[W]e have about a 70% probability of El Nino continuing through the summer and then it tapers a bit into the fall (down to ~60%),” says Michelle L’Heureux, a climate analyst at the NWS Climate Prediction Center.

 “The reason for these fairly modest chances is chalked up to the spring barrier in [El Nino] prediction. We recognize that this is not a good time of year to put a strong amount of faith in the models and, therefore, our probabilities and lack of commitment on future El Nino intensity reflect this.”

The National Weather Service does not make any specific forecast for the strength of El Nino in its current outlook.

 Other international meteorological services have also stopped short of predicting a strong El Nino.

Should a moderate-to-strong El Nino materialize as Roundy and Klotzbach predict, it wouldn’t be a bad thing in some respects.

 It would very likely suppress Atlantic hurricane activity this summer and fall. 

Some other likely effects:
Large amounts of heat from the tropical Pacific ocean would be released into the atmosphere, likely raising global temperatures to record-setting levels (note this happened last year, even without true El Nino conditions)
Washington, D.C. might see depressed snow next winter. Washington’s two least snowy winters on record (0.1 inches at Reagan National Airport) coincided with two of the three strongest El Nino events on record (1997-1998 and 1972-1973). On the other hand, moderate El Nino events have produced some of our snowier winters, including the winter of 2009-2010.

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.

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